Migratory birds skip Klamath’s dry refuges, disrupting annual migration

A dry channel at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Erik Neumann / JPR News

Just off the Stateline Highway, about 100 feet to California from the Oregon border, Klamath National Wildlife Refuge director Greg Austin stands at the edge of a swamp. There are flocks of mallards and a few geese, but as one of the top US stopovers for migrating birds, this wetland is almost completely dry this year.

“It’s the only water we have. And we can bring 5,000 birds down here right now, ”he said.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge during the day.

Fifty acres were inundated at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in October 2021. The refuge complex is expected to have around 20,000 acres with water in the fall to accommodate hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, according to the director of the refuge. Greg Austin.

Erik Neumann / JPR News

Five thousand? They should have 700,000 birds at this time of year.

Large drilling trucks parade down the highway, filled with onions from neighboring farms. They also depend on this water. Austin says that when the Klamath Basin is wet, it produces food for all kinds of bird species.

A man stands in a field during the day.

Manager, Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Greg Austin

Erik Neumann / JPR News

“When this place is doing its job, it’s fun to watch,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see this place do what it can do.”

If you look at a map of the North American bird migration route known as the Pacific Flyway, the Klamath Wildlife Refuge Complex is like the narrow center of an hourglass. Birds that fly between the Arctic and Mexico are directed to this series of six lakes and marshes. They rest and eat wetland plants and grains from agricultural fields to refuel for the rest of their journey.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt. It was the country’s first waterfowl refuge, and it was specially set aside to protect wild birds.

Austin says they could fly for a whole day before stopping here.

“It’s an old road,” he said. “These birds have always used this flyway. “

A depiction of the Pacific Flyway.

A depiction of the Pacific Flyway. Historically, birds from all over North America congregate on the Oregon-California border in the Klamath Basin during their fall and spring migrations.

Courtesy of the US Department of Fish and Wildlife

But without water or plants for food this year, they are skipping the Klamath shelters.

Caroline Brady is the Waterfowl Program Supervisor for the California Waterfowl Association. Lately, she has banded birds in the Sacramento Valley.

“You see more species coming in earlier, and overall everyone seems to be pounding the food,” she said.

Some birds arrived exhausted from their longer-than-usual trip to California.

“They’re hungry customers once they get here this year,” Brady said.

Craig Isola operates a different group of refuges at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California, most of which are wetlands for migratory birds.

“We saw a large number of snow geese arriving in early October by the tens of thousands,” he said. “And these don’t usually appear until the last week of October or the first week of November. So almost a month earlier.

Isola says droughts have made water less reliable in the Klamath Basin, it is becoming a trend for birds to arrive early in the Sacramento Valley.

“This places another additional burden on the food resources of the Sacramento Valley wetlands because it is a finite resource. And if there are more birds for a longer period, it could impact the overall carrying capacity, ”Isola said.

Even during drought years like this, the Sacramento Refuge Complex is entitled to 75% of its usual water allowance when compared to other users like agriculture under the Central Valley Project Improvement. Act. The Klamath Basin complex is less fortunate.

The Klamath Shelter Complex receives water supplied through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project after agricultural users and the Klamath Tribe, who hold superior water rights. So, while the Klamath refuge often lacks the water it needs, during years of drought it is the first user to do without it.

Brady says large numbers of birds arriving early can also be a problem for harvest season in the heavily cultivated Central Valley.

“This only precipitates more conflict between wildlife and agriculture because you have these hungry birds that have traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to get here and their usual stopping point is not available.” , she said.

A spokesperson for the California Rice Commission said the rice industry has not seen much conflict with migratory birds this year. But future droughts that disrupt migration are very possible.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in October, after a year of exceptional drought.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in October, after a year of exceptional drought.

Erik Neumann / JPR News

According to a this year’s Oregon Climate Change Research Institute report Based at Oregon State University, the models project hotter, drier summers in Oregon and less snow in the winter. These factors increase the likelihood of further droughts.

With the collapse of a previous Klamath Basin water-sharing agreement in 2015, consecutive years of drought have intensified tensions over water between farmers, indigenous tribes and wildlife advocates.

Austin says the only way to take care of the pelvis is to rebuild these partnerships. Dry conditions like these could be more and more common in the years to come.

“We need all the groups to hopefully come together and see if we can come to a long term deal that we can all work and live with,” he said.

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